Making a Run for It

I am a great fan of stories in which a woman decides to run away from her life. Think Shirley Valentine. It’s one of the first versions of this genre that I recognized as a Runaway Lady movie. My all time favorite, however, is an Italian movie called Pane e Tulipani (Bread and Tulips). In the case of this film’s heroine, she doesn’t make the decision to run away from her life until her life walks away from her, but she embraces the change in circumstances in the most beautiful and pleasing way.

So yes, it was a while before I recognized the pattern of my fascination with these stories, how drawn to them I was. I don’t have a life that is even a little bit like the lives of the women in those stories. I’m not married, have no children, don’t feel trapped and invisible in my world. And yet …

I said Pane e Tulipani was my all-time favorite of this genre. And that’s true … or, it has been true for years. Last year, in my Covid-inspired just-watch-every-streaming-thing life, I found a new movie to add to the list, and it quietly slipped right into the number one slot.

The movies that fill this category for me all have one clear thing in common: the star player is a white woman. Always and always, the sad, lonely, beleaguered, undervalued, tired, frustrated woman who chooses to walk away from her world is white. She goes somewhere, often someplace “exotic” and finds new happiness. I’m not casting aspersions on my much-loved plot line. I’m just saying that these particular plot details stand out in their sameness and in how much they aren’t like me.

Yes, there is gorgeous Angela Bassett as Stella getting back her groove, but Stella didn’t run away from her life. She went on vacation, that’s not the same at all. No.

Pane e Tulipani is still bathed in golden light and still holds a warm place in my heart, but the movie that smiled and laughed its way to the top of my list is Juanita, starring the incomparable Alfre Woodard. Juanita has so much going on, quietly and charmingly, and juggles all of its pieces skillfully and beautifully.

For me, the chance to watch this completely regular woman – not someone who can afford to buy an Italian villa (Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun) – decide to just pack her bag and go is an invitation to breathe deeply, to settle in and enjoy. And yes, the fact that Juanita is a regular Black woman makes all the difference. She’s no Stella with a high-powered job as a lawyer and a big, gorgeous home. She’s a caregiver, working in a skilled nursing facility. I can look at Juanita and see myself, which I could never do with Bassett’s Stella or Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert (in Eat, Pray, Love, one movie in this genre that I really, truly don’t care for).

*

I am not dreaming of running away from my life. Not in any significant way, at least. I would happily run away from the mountain of fertility treatment debt I continue to pay off, but I rather like my life otherwise.

So, not running away, but definitely wanting more opportunities to get out of Dodge, to escape, even briefly, from the miles-long lists in my bullet journal and actually sit still and quiet and have time to breathe, to think, to write.

A few weeks ago I gave myself such a getaway. A friend and I decided to make a DIY writing retreat. We went to the woods somewhere in Pennsylvania and were surrounded by woodpeckers, blue jays, mourning doves, and goldfinches, surrounded by trees and trees and trees … and with nothing to do by get the worlds out of our heads and onto the page.

This was my fourth DIY retreat, the third that I’ve done with friends. I had let myself forget how important this kind of time is to me. After all, I’ve been sitting alone in my apartment for 18 months, shouldn’t I have been able to use some of that time as a mandatory retreat or some such? But, of course, no. That’s not the same as taking myself away for dedicated writing time. Sitting in my home means being surrounded not by chatty birds but by all my undone chores. They mock my attempts to stay focused, reminding me of everything I have to do around the house.

I do write at home. Of course I do, right? If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have much to show for myself, since I spend the bulk of my time in my day-to-day life and not on vacation.

Still, respites are gold and so very necessary. They give me a kind of reset with my writing, and I need that whenever I can get it. A chance to recommit, to remember my writer self.

*

This most recent getaway was the first time I’d drawn even the faintest line of connection between my retreats and my obsession with runaway-middle-aged-lady stories. It’s not the location that’s inspiring me. If I were to flee my life, it wouldn’t very likely be an escape to the Pennsylvania woods.

My guess is that, rather than a “running away from,” what’s connecting for me is the “running toward” that is at the heart of each of these stories, that’s at the heart of my insistence on turning every vacation into a writing retreat. The women in those stories need to turn away from something in order to get closer to themselves, to their most authentic selves. I don’t need to turn away from my life, but I do need to remember to always move in the direction of my writing, always make and find space to do what I do when I go on retreat: sit still and quite. Breathe. Think. Write.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve kept working on personal essays, kept at my #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join, it’s never too late! Find the group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

24 Hours: Do I Dare?

What is it with me and challenges? I can’t resist them. Cannot. I never used to think of myself as a competitive person, but I so am. And that’s part of the driver behind my saying yes to challenges. I’m competing: against the ridiculousness of the challenge, against myself.

I think it throws me back to taking a dare as a kid. Someone would thrown down some petty or foolish gauntlet, and I would immediately feel the pull to dive in and prove … who knows what, but prove it all the same. Clearly, I’ve never outgrown the inability to resist that pull.

All this to say I can’t resist. Generally speaking, the challenges I take on are fairly mild. They come in the form of, say, doing NaNoWriMo. Or the 30/30 poetry month challenge … and sweetening the pot by choosing a poetry form and writing that form all month long. Not easy for me, but pretty harmless.

The 24 Hour Project is one of the challenges that keeps captivating me year after year. It tests me on different levels:

  1. Can I stay awake and mostly functional for 24 hours?
  2. Can I find something or someone to photograph every hour of the day?
  3. Will I be able to imagine a story to write for each photo I post each hour (this is the “sweetener” I’ve added to the basic rules of the 24HrPrj)?
  4. Will I be able to get all the photos of people that I want without being spotted (I fail this every year, always get busted at least once)?
  5. Will I venture into neighborhoods I haven’t visited on previous 24HrPrj days?
  6. Will I post all my “leftovers” after the day — all the pics that didn’t go up on the challenge day but which I still want to make stories for (I haven’t succeeded with this one this year … yet)?
  7. If I’m going out alone, will I settle into the fun of the challenge and not let the worry and discomfort of being alone on the street in the middle of the night sour my good mood and make it hard for me to take pictures (this one is really a crap shoot and has as much to do with me as it does with who else is out on the street in the middle of the night)?

Is it any wonder that I love this challenge when it has so many challenges baked in?

I had a lot of fun this year … after I managed to succeed at Number 7, calming down about being by myself. Both of the friends who’ve gone out with me in the past weren’t able to do the Project this year. I did wind up running into my friend S, the person who introduced me to the challenge. I spotted him in Times Square around 4 am and hung out with him and a few other 24 Hour Photogs for a couple of hours then met up with him for another couple of hours in the evening.

I was rusty with the story-making. Not only was the Project Covid-canceled last year, being in quarantine for the last forever has meant not being out and about that much, not taking pictures, not having the catalysts/inspiration to make up stories.

So yes, quite rusty. But after a couple of hours it began to feel easier. There’s a picture from the two o’clock hour that was the turning point. I had found an all-night diner (key establishments for making it through the Project, to be sure) and took a picture of a police officer who was having dinner and a very involved conversation with his partner. In the picture, he is studying the menu. The combination of his serious face and the fact that he reminded me of a friend’s son and echoed her older brother who had been a police officer all clicked for me and the story just fell into my head. From that point forward, the stories came more quickly and smoothly.

*

I miss my city. Eighteen months in my room is a long time to be separated from people watching, grabbing a coffee at a favorite café, chatting with store employees, having random and excellent encounters with strangers.

That last one is one of the things that struck me hardest during the 24 Hour Project. I miss talking to strangers, something I’ve always done quite a lot of … but not since Covid came to town. Around 7:30 Saturday morning, having seen my way through the long midnight-to-dawn of the challenge, I was headed home to charge my devices and recharge myself. I stopped in my grocery story because I still needed a photo for the hour. I saw an elderly woman I wanted to take a picture of. I did take a picture, but she surprised me by starting to talk to me.

Not only did she talk to me, but she was funny and sweet. At two moments in our conversation, she reached over and put her hand on my arm. You know, the way you reach for a friend’s arm when you’re talking and you want to emphasize your shared feeling at that instant. And she did it twice.

I am a toucher. I like affectionate physical contact. Not with everyone, of course, but yes, I like it. Having this woman touch me in this conversationally intimate way — after a forever of almost no physical contact, when we were strangers, when she was a tiny elderly white woman and I a big, Black woman — it was absolutely beautiful. It made my heart smile.

I have missed this type of sweetness my city has always given me. Yes, the city has given me some ugly moments, too, for sure. But I get much more of the random kindness and connection of that exchange in the chips and cookies aisle.

* * *

(My 24-Hour experience this year was a warm welcome back to my city. But what a difference a couple of weeks can make. I was out taking my pictures on July 24th … and now, Delta is threatening new lockdowns. I’m glad we got the Project in before the tide started to turn, and I really hope we can stay on the safer side of this variant wave.)

Do I dare? Well, I certainly always do when it comes to the 24 Hour Project. It’s such a great idea and a fun event, and I love following people from around the world, getting to see a day in their cities. This year I followed two Italians, a Pole, two Mexicans, one Turk, a couple of Australians, and a handful of people around this country. In a sense, I guess it’s a virtual way to have a random conversation with a stranger.

I need to get back to posting my leftovers … and some of the shots I’ve captured since the event. I’m already looking forward to next year!


It’s Tuesday, which means it’s Slice of Life day!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the other slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

I could use a great big waterproof hat.

There are for-sure some April showers on the way. And also, I’ve just been thinking this poem a lot:

John Had Great Big Waterproof Boots On

John had great big waterproof boots on
John had a great big waterproof hat
John had a great big waterproof mackintosh
And that said John is that
-A.A. Milne

It happens with surprising regularity that I have an A. A. Milne line (or twelve) in my head. Like an earworm. It is usually a line from one of three poems.

1) John and his great big waterproof attire, from which it is the final line of the poem that I find myself thinking on a loop.

2) The excellent and troubling-on-several-levels “Disobedience,” from which there is no specific line that repeats. I tend to have whole verses or large chunks of same running time after time in my head. A particular favorite bit might be:

James James
Morrison Morrison
(Commonly known as Jim)
Told his
Other relations
Not to go blaming him.

3) Or, finally, my most favorite of all the favorites, “Lines and Squares.”In the case of this delightful thing, I generally have to stop what I’m doing and recite the whole poem for myself. And that is what I shall do for you:

Lines and Squares

Whenever I walk in a London street,
I’m ever so careful to watch my feet;
And I keep in the squares,
And the masses of bears,
Who wait at the corners all ready to eat
The sillies who tread on the lines of the street
Go back to their lairs,
And I say to them, “Bears,
Just look how I’m walking in all the squares!”

And the little bears growl to each other, “He’s mine,
As soon as he’s silly and steps on a line.”
And some of the bigger bears try to pretend
That they came round the corner to look for a friend;
And they try to pretend that nobody cares
Whether you walk on the lines or squares.
But only the sillies believe their talk;
It’s ever so portant how you walk.
And it’s ever so jolly to call out, “Bears,
Just watch me walking in all the squares!”

After one of my long absences from blogging, March always brings me back, always reminds me how comfortable I am in this space, how much I enjoy connecting and sharing and learning here. Making it through the month always makes me feel as defiant and proud as Christopher Robin as he faces down the bears.

National Poetry Month starts tomorrow, and I am by no means ready. I think I’ve chosen a form. I think I’ve added my customary extra challenge. But I could wake up tomorrow and change my mind. I’m exhausted, which is how I always crawl into April. Should be interesting to see what NaPoWriMo dredges up out of me …

And that said John is that.


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

The Wild Unknown

Since August of last year, I’ve had the pleasure of co-hosting a monthly storytelling event at an art gallery in Brooklyn. This is the show’s sixth season. It was started by a poet who has a love of the oral tradition, of the magic of stories around the campfire. Every year, he selects a pair of hosts, and every month the hosts bring two storytellers in to share 15-minute tales with the always-appreciative audience.

Three years ago, a friend of mine was hosting and he invited me to come tell a story. OMG, but that was fun! I was crazy-nervous, but it was also great to get to share some of myself in that way.

When I was asked to host, I was excited to give it a try. I had, however, no idea what I was getting myself into. Finding storytellers is hard. But really hard. Sometimes people say “Yes!” right away, but sometimes I ask one person after another and come up empty again and again. And even once I have people, I have no idea what to expect. I haven’t asked people who are storytellers, and everyone is super nervous about having to tell a story — not read something they’ve written, but stand in front of people and tell. I’ve asked people who are interesting to me, people who I know have a lot of interesting things about them. These things don’t mean they’ll tell a good story, but I am lucky: they always do tell good stories! The challenge of coming to be a storyteller unlocks a new door for them, I think. I mean, many of the people I’ve invited are writers, so they definitely understand a lot about how stories work. But writing a story isn’t really as much like telling one as you might think.

One pure joy of this hosting journey has been my completely delightful co-host, a young woman who is an artist and an actor and who creates in so many amazing ways, and who is full of energy and light. We connected as soon as we were introduced, and are already planning future projects to work on after our hosting year has ended. I can’t wait to see what our next adventure will be!

We’ve been having a lot of fun on this ride … and then COVID-19 hit. Our little Park Slope gallery with barely enough space for five people to distance themselves socially wasn’t going to be open for this month’s event. So … we did what half the world has done lately: we went on Zoom!

I was nervous: what if no one showed up, what if my computer froze (it’s done that in a few of my meetings this week), what if someone noticed that my house is a mess?! You know, all the worries.

But … all the worries were over nothing. Tonight was so much fun!

A — People came. As we approached start time, my computer screen started to do that intro-to-the-Brady-Bunch thing with all the squares popping up to show who’s joining the meeting. Not only did people come, but they came from places they wouldn’t normally be able to join from! We had folks joining from Long Island and Colorado. My cohost is Australian, and her mom zoomed in from outside Melbourne! So tonight was our first international showcase!*

B — People were so nice. This is one of the things I love about our in-person event, the way the audience is always ready to embrace the storytellers. And that was definitely true tonight.

C — The storytellers were sweet and open and wonderful. It’s such a gift to have people give you their stories, to trust you to hear them. I feel so lucky every time.

Every month, we have a theme for the evening. We’ve tried to have our themes connect to whatever show is up in the gallery. And we pick them well in advance. This month’s theme was “The Wild Unknown,” picked when we had no idea we were about to be plunged into the wildest of unknowns. Couldn’t have had a better theme for tonight.

COVID-19 didn’t beat us, couldn’t keep us down! We laughed and cried and laughed together. Which is maybe a good thing to remember as we shelter in place and pray for safe passage through this unsettling and straight-up terrifying time.

Storytelling can move us. Storytelling can connect us. Storytelling can make magic even when we’re not in the same physical space together. Storytelling is how we weave ourselves and our worlds together. I am so lucky to be a part of this. And I can’t wait to do it again in April!

__________
* I really just want to say, “Wicked cool!” when I’m this happy and excited. I’m trying to rein it in …


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Pondering the Pantoum

Hey, friends, it’s Pi Day! I neither baked nor ate pie today, and I’m okay with that.

What I’m not okay with is our rapid progression toward April and me still with no idea what form I’ll focus on for National Poetry Month.

For folks who are new to this sleepy space, that’s a thing I do: pick a poetic form and explore it by writing a poem in that form every day for the month.

… or try to. I ran aground last year. I chose to write a pantoum a day. I also decided to dedicate the month to Say Her Name and have each day’s poem be for or about a Black woman who’d been killed by the police. I broke my own heart every day writing those poems, and I didn’t make it through the full month.

Part of me wants to stick with the pantoum this year. It’s an interesting form and I have the feeling I’ve got more of them in me. I don’t imagine that I can put myself through another Say Her Name month, however. It’s just too painful. There are, however, plenty more women to write about. And, too, I didn’t think I did Eleanor Bumpurs justice. Hers was my April 1st poem (this is an “of course” for anyone who knows me). The first poems of the new form are always my roughest, and I always thought I’d go back to her, end the month with her.

I’m undecided. There are, after all, so many other forms to explore. It seems … lazy almost to stick with the same form two years in a row. I did that with the arun, though. We’ll see.

I wonder if we’ll still be socially distancing and self-isolating come April. Seems likely the answer will be yes. Maybe more yes then than it is now. And I wonder if that will make a difference in the feel or quality of what I write, if my writing will see claustrophobic somehow. I guess we’ll see about that, too.

I’m not totally decided. I’m still looking around at other forms, but that pantoum is calling my name just now.

What are you planning for National Poetry Month? How do you celebrate? Do you write a poem a day? Do you make sure to have a poem in your pocket? Do you post your favorite poems on your blog or FB page? Are you already planning your month … or are you marveling at how nerdy I am to be thinking this hard about this so many weeks before the fact?


It’s March, which means it’s time for the
13th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Curious? Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot